At home, fears pervade routine

Maryland: Some cancel vacations or face longer commutes, but many cling to normality.

War in Iraq

March 23, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Towson University freshman Mike Johnson saw the writing on the wall the moment the first bomb fell over Baghdad: So much for spring break.

Johnson had been planning to descend on Daytona Beach, Fla., this weekend with eight friends for his induction into the annual smorgasbord of beer and bikinis. But the group agreed that with the invasion of Iraq under way, and a nation braced for terrorist attacks in retribution, the trip was too risky.

Three days into war, Marylanders are finding their routines and plans affected by the far-off fighting in ways both big and small. Trips to Europe are being canceled, commutes slowed further by new security checkpoints, identification cards demanded where they never were before.

"As soon as they started shooting off cruise missiles, I said forget it," said Johnson, a 19-year-old music industry major from Montgomery County.

Spring break, he reasoned, "is the perfect place for a martyr - all they have to do is stand in the middle of students and push a button. They want the places where the most people are, to strike the worst blow. I say, better safe than sorry."

To be sure, many on the home front are discovering another truth of wartime in contemporary America: For most, life goes on pretty much as normal. There are no rations, as in World War II; no mass call-ups through the draft, as during the Vietnam War. The public will mourn for lost soldiers, but it expects the number of casualties to be small.

For some, the war's lack of widespread effect on the home front is as unnerving as the minor adjustments it requires. The detachment some feel is notable, considering how close television brings viewers to the action.

Nelson Calderon, maitre d' at Hampton's in the Harbor Court Hotel, has been surprised to see business pick up since the war began. It's almost as if patrons have deliberately been trying to defy the war, he said.

"The lounge has an increasing number of people enjoying themselves to a nice drink, to the ambience, the piano playing," he said. "We have a television in the bar area, and the past couple nights, not too many people are paying attention to it. They want to ignore the war and enjoy themselves."

Security heightened

The apparent normality is somewhat deceptive. After all, the state and country have been on a partial war footing ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. So as security ratcheted up this week, some of the new measures were barely perceptible:

Commuters have to contend with new bottlenecks on the Jones Falls Expressway downtown, where dump trucks parked in the northbound lane are meant to protect the mayor's emergency control center, and on Interstate 95, where police have set up a new checkpoint for trucks.

Those entering some downtown parking garages, including in the basement of the Legg Mason building, now must present photo identification.

And when baseball fans file into Camden Yards for Opening Day next week, they'll discover that the tight security has received some further tweaks. Backpacks allowed into the park will be smaller, and hard-sided coolers and thermoses will be expressly forbidden, said ballpark operations manager Roger B. Hayden.

The rush of event and travel cancellations is reminiscent of the weeks immediately after the terrorist attacks. Many Maryland school districts have canceled out-of-state trips, and even some in-state ones; the Baltimore Museum of Industry has received eight cancellations and is now offering to make trips to the schools instead.

Especially disappointing to many Marylanders was the cancellation of today's 6,000-person marathon in Washington - a race for which runners spent months training in the heavy snow and unusual cold of the past winter.

Baltimore lawyer Julie Rubin had been training since October for what would have been her first marathon; she missed one last year because of an injury.

"I surely am sorely disappointed; I feel like I've been training for this for a year and a half," said Rubin, 30, who is hoping to run a marathon in New Jersey next month instead.

Deneen Habarta, owner of the Fells Point running store 5K, reported the cancellation on her e-mail newsletter. She said most runners understood.

"It really stinks, but in the end, there's always going to be another marathon," she said. "Not to bring up 9/11, but that was a big wake-up call for people. It prepared people" for the cancellation.

Deciding how to react to the war has been less clear-cut for some. Harford County public schools have canceled all school trips to Washington, Philadelphia and New York for now, but are still trying to decide about trips the bands from Edgewood and Havre de Grace high schools are supposed to take next weekend to perform at Disney World.

"This is something they've looked forward to, that they've made a big investment in and we're sensitive to," said school board spokesman Donald R. Morrison. "But the first concern has to be the safety of the kids."

Travel is down

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